Life, Death, and Living

I was struck today by the juxtaposition of two different stories on two different, extremely successful people.

On Sunday, Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon passed away at the age of 59.  Simon had been told that he had only months to live back in 2012, but he defied those odds, and lived long enough to give away much of his cartoon fortune, mostly to his favorite cause, animal welfare.

Yet what I found inspiring about Simon is that his illness wasn’t a wake-up call.  In fact, Simon had long ago realized the importance of living the life you want, as opposed the the one others expect you to:

“He amassed an extraordinary art collection, managed the former WBO
heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster for eight years, and became a
professional poker player. And he gave away money. Lots and lots of
money, particularly to animal-rights causes. In 2002, he established the
Sam Simon Foundation, which rescues dogs and trains them to work as
service animals. He started a vegan food bank in 2011. A boat in the Sea
Shepherd Conservation Society’s fleet of anti-whaling vessels bears his
name, as does the Norfolk, Virginia, headquarters building of People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Toward the end of his life, he
began purchasing circus elephants, bears from bear pits, and chimpanzees
from shitty roadside zoos, so that they could live out the balance of
their lives in animal sanctuaries.”

When you’re blessed with talent, it seems churlish to complain that it can become a curse.  But while Simon was blessed with enormous talent–he was the head writer for the show “Taxi” at the age of 27 (!)–he walked away from his profession long before his final illness.  While he kept working–even as he was dying, he was a consultant on the show “Anger Management,” he avoided the rigors of being a showrunner or head writer.  He worked as play, focusing on the experience, not the achievement:

“I get more out of it than they do,” he admitted cheerfully. “It’s
really good for me to be able to go someplace once a week and have an
office and pitch some jokes.”

When Alex Pappademas, the writer of the piece I’m quoting asked Simon in 2013 about whether he wished he’d stayed more involved in the TV business, Simon replied that making TV shows wasn’t his job.  Here’s what Simon had to say:

It really takes over your life,” Simon said. “It’s a
really hard thing to do. You can’t do it part-time, and I just look back
on some of my decisions, and deciding not to work full-time was the
best thing I ever thought of. So that means that, you know, since I was
35, I’ve done whatever I’ve wanted and done it wherever I’ve wanted, and
with a lot of money to spend and stuff. So, y’know, that’s another
reason I don’t feel as cheated by the cancer. There wasn’t all this
stuff I was waiting to do. I was doing it.”

While Sam Simon’s life was cut tragically short, it was not left hanging.  Simon focused on living the life he wanted.  Was it selfish of him to “deprive” the world of his genius?  My friend Ben Casnocha has written about the difficult choice that our friend and co-author, Reid Hoffman, faces: Do you save the world or savor the world?  It’s hard to do both.

Sam Simon did a tremendous amount for animal rights–that definitely fits into the “save the world” column–but he didn’t let that stop him from savoring the hell out of his all-too-short life.

Then today, I read Google CFO’s Patrick Pichette’s announcement of his retirement.  Pichette has had an incredibly successful career, but found himself pondering the same save/savor dilemma:

“A very early morning last September, after a whole night of climbing,
looking at the sunrise on top of Africa – Mt Kilimanjaro. Tamar (my
wife) and I were not only enjoying the summit, but on such a clear day,
we could see in the distance, the vast plain of the Serengeti at our
feet, and with it the calling of all the potential adventures Africa has
to offer.

And Tamar out
of the blue said “Hey, why don’t we just keep on going”. Let’s explore
Africa, and then turn east to make our way to India, it’s just next
door, and we’re here already. Then, we keep going; the Himalayas,
Everest, go to Bali, the Great Barrier Reef… Antarctica, let’s go see
Antarctica!?” Little did she know, she was tempting fate.

remember telling Tamar a typical prudent CFO type response- I would love
to keep going, but we have to go back. It’s not time yet, There is
still so much to do at Google, with my career, so many people counting
on me/us – Boards, Non Profits, etc

But then she asked the killer
question: So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time? The
questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”

When is it your time?  The fact is, the world is never going to tell you that it’s your time.  The world is busy claiming as much of your time as it can.  Recently, I’ve joked that I’m the hardest-working lazy man you’ll ever find.  I’m lazy in that I’m always trying to find ways for other people to do most of my work.  The flaw in my plan is that I then turn around and try to accomplish three times as much.

I’m not as financially robust as Sam Simon (who received royalties on every dollar “The Simpsons” earned) or Patrick Pichette (the longtime CFO of one of the most valuable companies in the world).  But money isn’t the barrier.  It’s that ongoing choice between saving and savoring.  And the rest of the world always needs saving.  Here’s what Pichette chose:

“This summer, Tamar and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. When
our kids are asked by their friends about the success of the longevity
of our marriage, they simply joke that Tamar and I have spent so little
time together that “it’s really too early to tell” if our marriage will
in fact succeed. If they could only know how many great memories we
already have together. How many will you say? How long do you have? But
one thing is for sure, I want more. And she deserves more. Lots more.

me to spare you the rest of the truths. But the short answer is simply
that I could not find a good argument to tell Tamar we should wait any
longer for us to grab our backpacks and hit the road – celebrate our
last 25 years together by turning the page and enjoy a perfectly fine
mid life crisis full of bliss and beauty, and leave the door open to
serendipity for our next leadership opportunities, once our long list of
travels and adventures is exhausted.”

I’ve already made a lot of choices in my life to make sure that my family got its full measure of my time and energy.  Yet I am always aware that I could do more.  What if I stopped working and focused on tutoring my kids?  What if I created the world’s greatest summer camp, modeled on YCombinator?

I guess part of it is that I do savor my work; as I’ve long said, my life’s mission is to help interesting people do interesting things.  If I wasn’t spending time with entrepreneurs, helping to bring new things into this world, I wouldn’t really be savoring my life either.

But as the lessons of Sam Simon and Patrick Pichette show, it’s up to us to decide how we spend our time.  Saving the world brings a certain kind of fulfillment, but it often keeps you from living the life you want.  Make time for savoring, and even if you aren’t given the chance to live the full Biblical threescore and ten, you’ll still have found a way to live a truly full life.

2 thoughts on “Life, Death, and Living

  1. I didn't have room to memorialize them in my essay, but I also want to mourn the passing of two people whom I didn't know, but whom I came to know through their loved ones.

    Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Kalanithi also passed away this week. He was a devoted husband and father, and as you can see from his videos, an incredibly courageous and thoughtful man:

    Well-known artist (and Stanford alum) Susan O'Malley passed away in an even more unthinkable tragedy. O'Malley, who was 9 months pregnant with twins, suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed and passed away, as did her twin daughters Lucy and Reyna. We often try to comfort ourselves by telling ourselves, "That could never happen to me." Yet tragedy can strike any of us at any time, regardless of our fame, our money, or our many loved ones.

    Be sure to tell the special people in your life how much you love them.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I think of you as a real role model in being deliberate about how we spend our time. I look forward to seeing you this spring xox

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